As a 40-year staple in the Exchange District, Toad Hall Toys is one of the oldest businesses in the neighbourhood. And it’s not hard to see why this whimsical little gem has stood the test of time.
Walking into Toad Hall Toys is like stepping into a magical childhood wonderland of delights whether you’re 3 or 83. If you’re a kid at heart there’s something for you to discover and take joy in.
“You don’t know what to expect when you just open this green door. It’s kind of like walking into a different reality, and children are not sure what to do with it. But they know it looks cool, and they’re not finding the things that they would have expected to find at a toy store: Barbie’s not here, Nintendo’s not here,” says store owner Kari England.
“There isn’t the blue isle or the pink isle, but here it’s like ‘oh there’s another corner, and another corner,’ or ‘what’s that hanging from the ceiling,’ or ‘oh, I can touch that.’ There’s just so much to explore.”
It was England’s parents Ann and Ray, who first opened the shop in 1977, after her father’s consulting firm split. He was determined never to work for someone else again. “He presented my mother with two options, a fish store, or a toy store. My mom has her degree in early childhood education and wasn’t keen on a fish store. She agreed to toys.”
In late 70s Winnipeg, only Eaton’s, The Bay, and Sears were options for buying toys. The Englands were inspired by a store they’d visited in Toronto that brought in incredible European toys. Toys that weren’t all made of plastic, and they were also far more interesting. That became the philosophy behind Toad Hall’s unique shopping experience— to bring in aesthetically beautiful, functional toys, that aren’t found at every generic commercial toy store.
And England makes it a point to bring in toys that engage the imagination rather than ones that determine a prepackaged story. “When I’m looking for something that is a fit for the store, it doesn’t come with a prescribed plot. A lot of the licenced products that are on the market come with a story already built in – they come from this certain land and this is how they are supposed to interact with each other. Whereas we sell toys that leave the plot open.” One example is Playmobil. “It’s a storytelling tool and with Playmobil you don’t get given a story line. You have characters, but you have to be creative and come up with your own storyline.”
In addition to being selective in the kinds of toys they carry, Toad Hall’s set up is unlike what you’ll find anywhere else. “We organize our store differently than a traditional toy store – so if you come in and need something for a four-year-old. We’ll say here are your options. We have a board game section, an arts and crafts section, a role play section, our performance art section – which is dressing up and puppetry, then we have our science department, cars and trucks, farm, Playmobil……and then within those sections we can grade them and find the right fit for the age of the child.”
And the staff at Toad Hall Toys pride themselves in their ability to find the toy that’s a perfect match for each child that walks through it’s doors.
“We try to get the most appropriate toy in the child’s hands,” says England. And that means they need to be good at “un-selling toys” too. “You see the frustration in a child’s face when they are handed something that they aren’t ready for— the child is either going to think they aren’t good enough or that the product is defective. And we’ve set them up for failure and that does nothing good for the ego.”
With their curated collection of beautiful toys set up in a way that lets people explore and be inspired, it’s easy to find anything from unique, first time infant gifts, to beautiful kaleidoscopes handmade in Israel, to old spinning tops with a timeless sense of childhood nostalgia. In fact, stocking classic toys that help even adults remember their own childhood is part of what Toad Hall Toys is all about.
“One of the things we hope people walk out with is that they understand our tagline: ‘Do you remember your childhood? We do.’ People walk in and say, ‘you know this was my favourite book’ or ‘I haven’t seen this in years.’”
England says that whether you’re a first-time visitor or you’ve been to Toad Hall Toys many times, the shop is bound to delight with the unexpected.
“I think what people will come out of Toad Hall with is an experience they weren’t expecting. For repeat visits that there will always be something new, that they’ll never be able to see everything. And that there are people here who can help you find something that’s the most appropriate.”
And it’s the unique location in the historic Exchange District that England says adds an essential charm that brings this special toy store to life.
“When my parents were looking to set up the store, this is the area they gravitated to. I don’t think there’s another place that we would fit. We have the creaky floors, and 18-foot ceilings, and pressed tin. It is part of the charm that it’s this old-world emporium. I can’t see us any place else.”
And neither can we. We love having Toad Hall Toys here in the Exchange District and with their perennially classic feel and unique offering we won’t be surprised to see them reminding todays toddlers of their own childhood in another 40 years.
Find them at 54 Arthur St, and visit their website at toadhalltoys.ca